It was 1976, and elementary students boarded a bus about to embark on a summer trip. But their reality soon became a nightmare when that same bus mysteriously disappeared. Here's the remarkable true story.
The Summer of 1976
On July 15th, 1976, students of Dairyland Elementary in Chowchilla, California, were on their way to experience an exciting summer outing. Unexpectedly, their trip to the local pool took a turn for the worst.
Just as the trip was coming to an end, the kids recklessly boarded back onto the bus. It was the last day before summer vacation, and they were ready to be collected by their parents. But, as they were making their way back to school, horror struck the bus.
Ed: The Bus Driver
Frank Ray was the man in charge of the bus and behind the wheel. Being the usual school driver for many years, the students referred to him as Ed. Parents were confident in him as he was responsible for the kids' safety. On the day of the trip, he was in charge of twenty-six children ages five to fourteen.
The kids were in a hurry to return, as their parents had an arranged time to collect them. They decided it was best to get back on the bus in the clothes they already had on and not change out of their swimsuits to speed things up. They thought this would make things go smoothly, but unfortunately, this was not the case.
On The Way Home
After repeatedly catering to the children's safety to and from school, he knew how to handle any dip in the road. He was an experienced and focused driver. After twenty-three years, nothing could distract him. Whether it was a child on board or on the streets, it seemed nothing would steer him in the wrong direction. For now...
Ed thought it would be sensible to take quiet backroads for a smoother journey back to school. With minimal traffic, it was a peaceful bus ride that was scheduled to return on time. However, at one point, Ed noticed a white van parked on the side of the road in front of the bus.
A Bump In The Road
As he approached the van, he realized the passengers needed car assistance. Ed questioned whether he should help them, although his initial intentions were to get the kids home as quickly as possible. Though skeptical at first, at risk of delaying their return, he eventually asked the passengers if they needed help.
To Ed's surprise, the van quickly drove away and blocked the road in front of them. Things turned dark quickly. Three men with pantyhose covering their faces exited the van and started walking toward the bus. Ed began to honk out of panic, turning his head back and forth, checking on the children and watching the men inch closer.
A Fight or Flight Response
It was everyone's worst nightmare. As Ed looked back in front of him, the men were already standing by the bus door, armed with weapons. Ed had no option but to remain still on the bus, praying for the best while the three men were in a threatening state.
As imagined, things only got worse. The men commanded Ed to release the lever and open the bus door, but he was not ready to give in straight away. Questioning his next move, if he opened the door, the men had easy access to harm everyone inside the bus - yet still, the men could smash through the glass door.
With minimal time to act quickly, Ed opened the door as he considered the threat. He thought if he tried to drive away or operate for defense, the men would become even more enraged. As the door opened, the strangers stepped onto the bus with the children in front of them, frightened for their lives.
The three men dominated the situation, moving the children and Ed towards the back of the bus, and waving their weapons carelessly. One of the men instructed Ed, "no hero stuff… just sit there quietly, and everything will be fine." Lost for words, the children and Ed had no choice but to stay silent and keep their hands low.
Detour To Danger
Each armed kidnapper had a role. One kept the children hostage, another moved the white van out of the way, and the third took the wheel. The bus had been hijacked. It was a 15-minute bus journey, and the criminals took a detour off the main road, arriving at a stranded location.
The criminals parked the bus on an abandoned road in the hopes that no one would see or find them. The area was covered by trees, disguising the bus's existence. The passengers were invisible at this point, and the children and Ed were instructed to leave the bus and divide into two groups.
The bus had been abandoned, and the criminals had plans to relocate the children and Ed into a new vehicle. They faced a van with its windows completely boarded up. They were at a complete loss for where they were going. As the situation became more real, the children began to cry, hungry and thirsty - not knowing what was ahead.
Tensions were extremely high at this point, so the older kids tried to calm the younger ones down as much as they could. In an attempt to make the situation even remotely better, they started to sing If You're Happy and You Know It, hoping to distract them from the journey and heart-palpitating situation.
Endless Hours Later
Ed and the children had been traveling in the cramped vehicle for eleven hours, completely unaware of where they were and what was about to happen. The van suddenly stopped. It was a stomach-turning moment for everyone inside. The three men opened the doors and took each child out of the van, abruptly shutting the doors behind them.
Ed was first out of the van. He looked around to realize they had been taken to a rock quarry. When they thought it couldn't get any worse, each child was then held at gunpoint. With threats at their heads, they were instructed to climb down a ladder leading them into an underground hole.
The Ladder To Nowhere
Screams could have been heard a mile away as each child, one by one, forcibly climbed down. With very little light, Ed realized once they had reached the bottom that they were inside a truck trailer buried twelve feet underground. There was no way out once they were down.
The van underground was surrounded by metal walls, and behind that was soil. Even if they had attempted to break through the walls, it was inescapable. Ed, the heroic man he was, tried to think of ways to keep the situation as calm as he could as he watched each child hesitantly climb down.
The Next Stage
All of the children were now underground, accompanied by Ed. They could have been left there, and that was it. But, the kidnappers had planned this with horrifying detail. The men made each child write their name, address, and phone number. Lastly, they took a piece of clothing from everyone.
This was all they needed. It was then a stomach-sinking moment when the men climbed up the ladder and took it with them. They closed the hole with a heavy metal plate followed by two car batteries to secure it. They drove off, and it was official. As Ed and the children sat underground, their lives were dangling by a thread.
Though Ed tried to remain calm, he became despondent about the situation. Though he could hear the van drive off, they were so underground that their screams would not be loud enough for someone to hear. Even more so, the hole was disguised, making it merely impossible for police to become suspicious in the event of a search.
It is unimaginable to even think of the children if they did not have Ed. He kept telling them everything would be okay - but even he was trying to reassure himself. Ed noticed they had not been physically hurt yet, hoping this meant the men might come back in the coming hours or even days. Would they be making a ransom demand?
Starting To Panic
Oddly enough, the men had left minimal food and water in the underground prison. But, with twenty-six children and a bus driver, it was impossible to ration, finishing it all in just a few hours. Two fans for ventilation had also been installed, but they soon broke... and things started to sink in.
It was now morning. They had woken up to the scorching California temperatures and feeling it from 12 feet underground with no ventilation. The children were becoming reckless, sweating, and dehydrated. And the holes dug out for toilets were over-used, creating an intolerable smell in the truck. Survival became questionable.
Sharing The News
On the flip side, the parents, of course, realized their children had not yet returned home. And panic struck. Everyone heard and quickly became involved, determined to know what happened. Soon enough, the entire community of Chowchilla took action and began searching for the children.
Luckily, a plane that flew over the de-toured route spotted the abandoned bus and notified the police at around 7:30 p.m. Officials went to the bus's location in hopes of answers. Thankfully, the tire marks on the road indicated to the police that other vehicles had been there. The pieces of the puzzle were slowly assembling.
The Search Begins
The police were determined to find the missing passengers from the bus. Considering the fresh tire scratches, they believed there was a chance they could still be alive. The distressed parents were notified their children were likely kidnapped and that there would be ransom if their children were found and returned home.
This was the moment when the chief of the Chowchilla police force called in the governor for backup. They were entirely overthrown by the danger of the situation. They acted quickly, and thirty FBI agents arrived in Chowchilla to start the heavy searching before a ransom request could be made.
These ingenious criminals planned the kidnapping down to the last ransom request. While the children and Ed were uncomfortable in their own doom, the three men made their next move. They had called the Chowchilla police station, demanding $5 million as a request for ransom.
However, as the police lines were bombarded with calls, they were unsuccessful in getting a hold of them after three attempts. The men chillingly knew the parents were hogging the police line, worried about their missing children. They dismissed trying again and would simply call the next day.
Time Was Running Out
Unlike Ed and the children, the men slept through the night seamlessly. Ed spent most of the night caring for the children. He tried to maintain a calm environment as they were screaming, crying, and constantly turning to him for reassurance. Ed was trying to keep them from going into a complete state of panic.
The oldest child in the bunker was fourteen, named Mike Marshall. With Ed able to communicate best with Mike in this situation, they both spotted that the weight from above the trailer was becoming weaker. Dust began to trickle down, and the metal roof began to sink. They believed they were going to be buried alive.
Planning Their Escape
Mike and Ed tried their hardest to think of any possible escape route. Ed was convinced the men would be waiting nearby above in case of an attempt to escape, though Mike disagreed. Mike was determined to try and escape - no matter the consequence on the other side. But it was worth it. Right?
Mike had persuaded Ed to take a risk and attempt escape. Whether it was their limited living conditions underground or the men waiting for defeat above, it would be the end either way. They had to try for the sake of their lives. But this led them to a startling realization...
The View Above
The only way in was the only way out. Ed and Mike knew the hole was too high to access quickly, but still determined, they sought out a plan to try and reach it. The only useful tools in the truck were the dirty piles of old mattresses, which Ed took into his initiative.
They stacked the mattresses to which Mike climbed to the top with the help of Ed. When Mike was sitting at the top of the mattresses, Ed passed him a wooden piece from an old bed frame. They tried to nudge the hatch with the wooden tool for hours - but it wasn't looking hopeful.
A Slight Chance of Hope
Both with very little energy, they charged up their strength in the hope of survival. They had no idea they were being held underground by the batteries and dirt. So, they kept trying to budge what they thought was just a heavy covering. And after hours of prodding... the cover slightly opened.
It was a sign of hope. Their hard work slowly paid off as they pushed off the cover. While they thought that was the end of underground misery, an additional wooden box was covered with soil sealing them in. But Mike did not give up. He kicked the wooden box out the way along with the soil. Only he was disturbed by what awaited him.
Free, At Last
As they awaited to be greeted by the criminals above the ground, no one was in sight, to their surprise. After sixteen hours in darkness, it wasn't easy to adjust to the sunlight. However, at this point, their main priority was getting all the kids as fast as possible.
Thanks to Mike, there was an open space clear enough for the kids to escape quickly. Each child followed Mike's footsteps, climbing out via the stack of mattresses and crawling through the small opening. Luckily, none of the children were hurt during their escape. They were finally out.
Crying For Help
They had to think quickly now. As they had finally escaped, they did not know when the criminals could return and send them back underground to their doom. Ed gathered all the children together, and with barely any energy left, they wandered through the rock quarry to see if anyone was around.
It was a sight they did not expect to see. A group of construction workers stood right before their eyes. The workers recognized Ed and the children straight away amid the breaking news. "The world's been looking for you," they exclaimed. It was a whirlwind of emotions, but they prioritized contacting the police.
The Police Questioned Ed
The police rushed to the rescue and arrived at the site within minutes. The children had been returned safely to their parents with emotions running high. The officials wasted no time searching for the kidnappers - but first, they needed answers from perhaps the only useful source: Ed.
As Ed was traumatized from the pre-occurring events, the police had to hypnotize him, putting him in a calmer state. Doing so helped him re-collect any information that might have been blurred out during the experience. Ed remarkably recalled the license plate of one of the white vans - and a few numbers from the others.
Connecting the Clues
Ed supplied the police with enough information for the Chowchilla police force to start their search, especially with the license plate. After rummaging through the system, they found the vans were registered to a warehouse in San Jose and leased to a man named Frederick Woods.
They further discovered that Mr. Woods owned the rock quarry in the area where Ed and the children were kept hostage. So, the police headed back to the scene at the quarry. Once they arrived, they were startled at what they found, a clue that could solve the entire investigation.
Hunting Down The Criminals
As the police entered the quarry, they spotted Frederick Wood's home and made an aim for it. They searched the house thoroughly and found a disturbing note left behind. A ransom note was found on the floor, but who had written this? Suspicions were becoming more intact.
What was more alerting was that Frederick's son, Fred Woods IV, had recently left town, and no one knew where to. The police decided to contact his friends, Richard and James Schoenfeld, to understand why Fred left and where he went. However, Richard and James were also missing. It was now all falling into place.
Arresting The Criminals
The whole country had teamed up to find the trio. Everyone was prepared to hunt them down and receive the consequences they deserved. There was a man-hunt in full swing. Everyone was on the lookout. Richard soon cracked due to the public pressure and stepped forward. As for James and Fred? They remained out of the spotlight.
Days after Richard had been arrested, the police continued to search for the other two. Finally, one week later, a local resident caught sight of James in Menlo Park. The police quickly arrested him. While Fred was hiding in British Columbia, he was found sooner rather than later and arrested on the spot.
Finding A Loophole
These three men all came from extremely wealthy backgrounds and high-profile families. So it became puzzling as to why they thought of pulling off such a despicable crime for a potential cash 'reward.' Perhaps they believed due to their connections, they could have gotten away with it. But, this was not an option.
In this case, there were no excuses allowed. Even the best lawyer in the world could not have helped. The judge gave them all a life sentence without parole as an option. But shockingly, the men continued to find loopholes. After using their contacts, they somehow managed to find a judge who allowed the possibility of parole.
Sentences Cut Short
Throughout their time in prison, brothers Richard and James complied with all rules and obeyed every order. Doing so led to early releases. Richard was set free in 2013 at 77, and James in 2015 when he was 82. However, Fred Woods is still behind bars and is not set to be released any time soon.
Fred continues to plead for parole. In October 2019, Fred tried for the nineteenth time to ask for parole but was rejected once again due to his lack of remorse for the trauma he caused the victims. Fred's next hearing is not until 2024. Still, many people protested against James and Richard's release.
An Inexplicable Bond
It was reported by Inside Edition that after 40+ years, the traumatized victims of the 1976 kidnapping reunited. The survivors came face to face with the same bus they were on when the kidnapping occurred. From anxiety to claustrophobia, paranoia, and panic attacks, they all experience these prolonged effects to this day.
Recovery remains difficult, knowing that there are two of the criminals that caused this extensive trauma on the loose. It is almost impossible to avoid re-living these experiences in their minds, but it keeps the bond between the survivors strong.
The Lucky Ones
Known as "the biggest mass abduction in US history," they are all extremely lucky to be here today. It could have turned out the opposite way if it wasn't for their bravery and the physical strength of Ed and Mike. It is terrifying to think about what could have happened if the criminals requested ransom.
A huge accreditation is given to fourteen-year-old Mike's remarkable and endless strength as he prodded against the covered roof for hours. Unfortunately, although the victims managed to escape, the haunting memory will live with them forever...